It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful desert fishing spot than Bartlett Lake, surrounded by the rugged cliffs and mountains of the Sonoran Desert.
When the slopes around Bartlett Lake are abloom with yellow poppies in springtime, there’s truly nothing like it.
But you came to this article for the fishing, not just the sights, and does Bartlett ever deliver on the fishing.
A man-made lake spanning more than 2,000 acres in Central Arizona, Bartlett Lake is one of the state’s most reliable fishing lakes. A haven for bass and panfish, it’s also one of the leading spots in Arizona to catch giant flathead catfish.
Bartlett Lake is a long, meandering reservoir on the Verde River. It’s the oldest Verde River reservoir, originally constructed between 1926 and 1939. It’s deep too—about 175 feet at full pool—and has numerous coves, cuts and washes that harbor fish.
The landscape around Bartlett Lake is part of Tonto National Forest, and several boat launch facilities and recreation sites are located along the western shore. The Forest Service operates campgrounds around the lake as well.
Bartlett Lake is one of the best fishing lakes near Phoenix, and its location just 50 miles from the city also makes it a popular spot for boating, swimming and water sports.
Bass fishing tournaments are a regular occurrence here, and several experienced local fishing guides take anglers out after both bass and catfish.
Fishing the lake’s sheltered coves from a kayak or float tube is a great way to experience Bartlett Lake at a slower pace.
No conversation about the best catfish lakes in Arizona is complete without mentioning Bartlett Lake. This reservoir is home to ample populations of both channel catfish and flathead catfish, including some true giants.
Arizona’s state record flathead catfish, weighing over 76 pounds, was caught here in 2014. The fish was caught by Eddie Wilcoxson—a fishing guide and local legend who goes by the moniker “Flathead Ed”—and is the largest fish of any kind ever caught in Arizona.
If you’re out for catfish on Bartlett lake, there are a few ways to go about it. Catfish are, for the most part, nocturnal feeders. They hole up in deep water during the day, and prowl shallow waters in search of a meal between dusk and dawn.
Channel cats are, shall we say, not especially discerning when it comes to what they’ll eat. Chances are, if you think it smells terrible, they’ll love it. Chicken livers, nightcrawlers, stinkbait, dough baits, chunks of hot dog, anchovies and shrimp are all on the menu.
Bartlett Lake has decent numbers of channel catfish in the 5- to 8-pound range, and a huge population of smaller fish. They’re commonly caught from shore at Rattlesnake Cove, SB Cove, Bartlett Flats and other bank fishing spots around the lake.
To catch them, all you really need to do is keep your bait close to the bottom in the evening or after dark, ideally in 10 to 25 feet of water.
Flatheads, on the other hand, are hunters. They’re more likely to go for live prey, and their main food sources in Bartlett Lake are bluegill, carp and shad.
Experienced local catfish anglers spend their day catching live baits here on the lake, and then switch to fishing for big cats after dark.
Sturdy rods and heavy line are essential if you’re going after catfish. Flatheads weighing 50 pounds and up are rare, but you can reasonably expect to tangle with a 20-pound-plus fish.
The biggest catfish also have a habit of holing up in the thickest, snaggiest cover available.
The best places to catch flathead catfish are shallow coves and flats that have lots of cover and easy access to a nearby drop-off to deeper water.
The Yellow Cliffs area checks all these boxes, and a lot of big catfish have been caught here. It’s also a spot where you really need a boat to fish effectively.
Generally speaking, the upper end of the lake is best for flathead catfish, but some big ones have been caught down by the dam too.
The best opportunities are usually in spring or fall. With moderate weather, you can often catch cats during the day, especially toward the upper end of the lake where the water is more stained.
You can catch big catfish in summer, but with the days being hot and sunny, night fishing is especially important.
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Bartlett Lake is one of Central Arizona’s most reliable largemouth lakes, and anglers can count on catching solid numbers of bass in practically any season.
Spring is prime time for bass fishing in Bartlett Lake, as largemouths head toward shallow creek inlets, coves and washes to spawn in March and April, usually in less than 15 feet of water.
SB Cove and Bartlett Flat are great areas to find bass on their beds in spring.
Try tossing crankbaits in shallow water when bass are in pre-spawn and post-spawn mode, or target bedding bass with a tube, Senko or creature bait. A Carolina or Texas-rigged worm can usually be counted on to draw a few strikes too.
Bass transition a bit deeper along points and ledges as the water warms in summer. However, they’ll often smack topwater lures in shallow water when they most actively in the morning or evening this time of year.
During the sunny part of the day, try drop-shotting around the shady sides of ledges and creek channels.
Robo Worms are a favorite drop-shot lure when bass are a little deeper.
Bartlett Lake actually offers some surprisingly good winter bass fishing too; you simply have to look at deeper habitat.
Areas where the bottom drops off sharply to the main river channel are usually good deep bass haunts. Look for a swing in the river channel, or focus on steep drops that offer quick access to nearby shallow coves.
Yellow Cliffs, located on the upper half of the lake, is a great area where bass can be found year-round at various depths. Farther down at the lower end of the lake, the Panic Rock area can also be productive.
If you launch at the Bartlett Lake Marina, fish the immediate area first. There’s a steep drop-off with a lot of man-made structure near the mouth of the cove where the marina is located. The islands directly across the lake from the marina are worth exploring too.
The majority of bass aren’t huge here—most bass in Bartlett Lake are Northern strain largemouths—but the lake is loaded with 1- to 3-pound largemouths.
Florida strain largemouths have also been stocked in recent years, and the lake has produced a few bass in the 10-pound class. Look forward to more and more trophy bass coming from Bartlett Lake in the future.
Like a lot of Arizona reservoirs, Bartlett Lake experiences some fairly drastic fluctuations in water levels. These have been exacerbated by repairs to the dam in recent years, which have caused the lake to be lower than normal during the spring spawning season.
Crappie seem to be more affected than bass or catfish, and as a result, crappie fishing has gone through boom-and-bust cycles over the last decade. That being said, when the crappie fishing is good, it’s really good.
The Arizona Game & Fish Department stocked around 14,000 sub-catchable black crappie in Bartlett Lake in 2021, and these fish grow fast. There’s every reason to be hopeful about the future of crappie fishing in Bartlett Lake.
There’s typically solid crappie fishing on Bartlett Lake from March through May, when crappie head toward shallow brush and woody cover to spawn.
Crappie have a way of vanishing into the abyss in summer, but be sure to come back later in the year for the fall bite.
Some of the best crappie fishing takes place in October and November when the water cools down and the weather becomes more stable and moderate. Brush piles in 10 to 15 feet of water can be loaded with crappie this time of year.
This is an especially good time to have a map of the Arizona GFD’s fish habitat structures handy, so we’ve linked to it below.
Old Christmas trees in particular are prime crappie hangouts, and bunches of them have been sunk in the upper portion of the lake around Yellow Cliffs, Rocky Way Banks and Cat Bay.
There’s also a lot of naturally occurring brush and standing timber way up in the upper lake where the Verde River enters around the promisingly named Bass Flats and Crappie Cove area.
The farther up you go, the muddier the water tends to be. If you’re fishing in the upper portion of Bartlett Lake, use a lure with some extra flash, like a Roadrunner jig or Beetle Spin.
Otherwise, the best tactic for finding crappie is usually motoring from one area of brush piles to the next, and then trolling slowly over and around the brush with either live minnows or small crappie jigs. Tube jigs and marabou jigs in high-visibility colors like white and chartreuse are usually very effective.
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This article gives you a great head start at catching more tasty slabs in Arizona. The following two articles will take you over the finish line … and right to the frying pan!
Other Fish Species
If the bass aren’t biting, the crappie won’t cooperate, and the catfish are nowhere to be found, never worry. Bartlett Lake has populations of several other fish species that can save the day when all else fails.
Carp aren’t first on most fishermen’s list of favorite species, but they do have a devoted following.
Bartlett Lake has one of Arizona’s biggest carp populations, and also has the distinction of holding the state’s 37-pound carp fishing record.
Carp are sometimes caught incidentally by catfish anglers using dough baits, and may be targeted specifically using sweet corn and a variety of hard-boiled dough baits known as “boilies.”
Bowfishing for carp is also legal here, and smaller carp (weighing less than a pound) are often caught using either throw nets or hook-and-line for catfish bait.
During warm weather, carp can be caught in 10 to 20 feet of water in any of Bartlett Lake’s coves and creek mouths.
Bluegill and Sunfish
Bartlett Lake supports a very robust bluegill population. There are some hefty ‘gills here weighing up to half a pound, but most are relatively small. Four- to 6-inch bluegill are everywhere in Bartlett lake
Still, catching bluegill on ultralight tackle is a lot of fun. It’s a great way to introduce kids to fishing, and many catfish anglers will start their day loading up on live bluegill to use as flathead bait.
A piece of nightcrawler under a bobber is all you really need, but these scrappy panfish can be caught on small jigs and other lures, flies and various baits. We have plenty of bluegill and sunfish fishing tips to boost both your catch and fun.
The area near the dam offers great bluegill fishing, and they’re also common in Rattlesnake Cove, the Yellow Cliffs area, around the docks at the marina, and far up at the river end of the lake.
Although largemouths are far more common, Bartlett Lake also harbors a fair population of smallmouth bass. A former state record smallie was caught here, way back in 1977.
These fish love rocky cover, and you have an opportunity to catch them on any of Bartlett’s rocky points, ledges and reefs.
Try rocky spots around the south end of the lake, like Moon Island—a boulder-strewn point that only becomes an island when the water is high—and steep, rocky banks like Teepee Hill, which is near the dam.
Some anglers catch smallmouths in the spillway area of the Verde River below the dam as well.
Jigs and tubes are some of the best smallmouth lures, and finesse soft plastics on drop-shot rigs are a great way to fish deep, rocky cover.
Planning Your Trip
Spring tends to be the best time to fish Bartlett Lake, but this is truly a year-round fishery. The lake can get busy on summer weekends, but it’s usually not too hard for anglers to find a secluded spot. Winter is a great time to feel like you have the lake all to yourself.
If you’re planning to launch a boat during the busy season, try to get to the lake early to beat the crowds. There are often launching delays at the marina on busy weekends.
Water level is always a deciding factor when you’re planning a fishing trip at Bartlett Lake. Periodic drawdowns are normal, but the fluctuations can be extreme. Winter and spring typically have the highest water levels, and you can find current lake levels here.
Directions to Bartlett Lake
Bartlett Lake (also known as Bartlett Reservoir) is located northeast of Phoenix, and is about a 1 hour and 20 minute drive from Downtown.
There are a few ways to get there, but the simplest route is to take the AZ-101 loop to Pima Road N. From Pima Road N, head east onto Cave Creek Road, and then turn right onto Bartlett Dam Road, which leads to the lake.
Bank and Boat Access
Access to Bartlett Lake is available at numerous points along the western shoreline, where there are several public access sites within Tonto National Forest.
The Bartlett Lake Marina is the most popular launch site, and although it’s located within the national forest, it is privately owned. Docking, boat rentals, food and drink, and various fishing and boating supplies are available at the marina.
Just a short drive up the lake from the marina, the Jojoba Day Use and Boat Launch site offers an additional boat ramp, shore fishing access and a floating dock, with ample parking nearby. This ramp sometimes closes during times of low water.
Head a little farther up the shoreline and you’ll come to the Rattlesnake Cove Non-Motorized Boat Launch. This is a popular place to launch canoes and kayaks, and there’s also a fishing platform here. Camping is available nearby at the Rattlesnake Cove Group Camp.
If you continue north along the western shore of Bartlett Lake, you’ll come to the SB Cove Shoreline Area, Yellow Cliffs Day Use Site and Bartlett Flat Shoreline Area. Yellow Cliffs has a boat launch as well, where one can launch both motorized and non-motorized craft when water levels permit.
In addition to the official access sites mentioned above, most of the shoreline is undeveloped and open to bank fishing, provided you’re willing to hike a bit. It’s possible to park along the service road near the south shore and walk down to the water.
Additional camping is available below the Bartlett Dam, along the Verde River at the Riverside Campground.
Know Before You Go
More than 2,000 man-made fish habitat structures have been placed in Bartlett Lake by the Arizona Game & Fish Department. A map of their locations has been made available, and is worth a look before you hit the water.
Bartlett Lake can get a bit windy, especially during the middle part of the day. Some anglers employ a drift sock to combat the wind. If you’re fishing from a kayak or float tube, the best way to beat the wind is to stick close to the western shoreline.
Rattlesnake Cove is closed to all motorized watercraft, making it a favorite place for paddling and shore fishing.
Bartlett Lake has a lot of submerged rocks, timber and other hazards, and fluctuating water levels mean you never know how far below the surface they may be. Always use caution when boating.